THE BLOG

When the Buck Doesn't Stop

11/13/2013 05:19 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Whether or not one supports the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the initial rollout of HealthCare.gov was a debacle. The website's failed launch has been a lightning rod for pundits universally expressing criticism and could undermine one of the most significant social programs in recent times.

President Obama apologized to the American people and according to news reports, millions of Americans could lose their insurance coverage.

While the technical lessons from the dysfunction of the site will undoubtedly be studied extensively, it is also critical to analyze this failure from a management perspective. The ACA was purported to represent an exciting new era for Americans to shop for health care and its failure may be attributed to a vacuum of leadership and intelligent, proven management techniques.

I understand that management and leadership, particularly in complex organizations, can be a challenge, but the failure of the ACA website launch clearly demonstrates the need for effective leaders who can utilize their authoritarian role within a collaborative environment.

Most effective management combines elements of two distinct styles. The first is a collaborative, team-based approach in which general direction is given to a group that develops strategies and goals and then executes the plan. The second is a more centrally-managed approach in which, although input is sought from others, a manager defines the objectives, timeline and methodology to be used by the team charged with the execution.

So which approach is better and when do they work?

When long-term collaboration and melding of divergent views for a common purpose is important, a cooperative approach typically works better. Much of the current dysfunction in Congress stems from individual senators and representatives adhering to personalized, provincial agendas, rather than a joint effort to advance programs for the sake of the greater good.

In the private sector, be it for-profit or not-for-profit, similar approaches to collaboration are important when organizations merge, and when they engage in common projects where long-term goals need to be executed.

In contrast, there are times when the most vital aspect of an undertaking is the accountability of delivering a product, a policy or a scientific advance on time to meet a specific goal. Of course, collaboration is important in such undertakings, but in my experience as a college president I have had to say, "I understand what the issues are, but this is how we're going to do it."

That sort of management style was sorely lacking in the development of HealthCare.gov. Several different governmental agencies were involved, including White House staff, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and political officials. Additionally, numerous private contractors were tasked with the creation of separate functions without a transparent hierarchy of authority. No single individual or organization was tasked with oversight of all the separate entities and certainly, no one had the fortitude to say, "This is not working."

I do not believe there is a single management style that works well for all people and in all situations, but examining failures can lead us to improve the way we work in the future. Collaboration, input and willingness to defer to others are important aspects in any organization and help achieve a warm, collective environment that improves job satisfaction and may lead to long-term success.

But sometimes, a visionary like the late Steve Jobs needs to get up and say, "We will deliver the iPhone on June 29, 2007. It will work. It will revolutionize technology and you, as a group, will help make it happen. If you cannot deliver, work harder or I will find someone else who can make things work." This approach might not always be pretty, it may not always be collaborative, but it will not be HealthCare.gov.